Serendipity Strikes Lithium & Tweed

| TMO Interview

James Wilson tells a fascinating story of how he started with a small band of übergeeks and networking services, founded LithiumCorp, developed client apps on Macs, created an experimental iOS app, Stickybeaks, and then finally created Tweed, a Twitter client that curates tweets that have URLs. It’s a tale of serendipity and synergy in the Apple world.

Dave Hamilton: You had kind of an interesting path in the Apple market. In essence you started making tools for übergeeks.

James Wilson: Exactly right. I mean, we started as a band of übergeeks that had no intention at all of ever making a product in the Mac space. In 2003, we actually started as a company that was just built up to do managed network monitoring services. For our own customers. But the three of us who started up the company, we liked using Macs. And so we built it on the Mac. For ourselves. That was great.

And then in 2005, we sat back and realized, there’s nothing else like this on the Mac. And we thought, well, let’s go make it a product, take it over to Macworld and see what happens. So we bought the smallest booth we could. We got swamped. It was awesome. And we realized, this product has a real future.

So we worked on it a little more, trimmed it up, got some great help with the custom Xsan and Xserve stuff. Off we went! That’s how we grew Lithium into the Mac market.

James WIlson

DH: Cool. So I also want to talk about what you’re doing now too because that’s a whole left turn for you. But … this wasn’t your first coding project, clearly.

JW: Right. I’ve been doing software development since high school. But I’ve always come at coding from a Linux perspective — I never got into the Windows thing. Whenever we did Windows, I ended up hiring a Windows guy. I just can’t stomach it.

DH: So were living in the UNIX world, but more on the Linus side, not the Mac OS X world.

JW: Exactly right. And it was at about Mac OS X, the original 10.0 release [Chetah], that I switched over to a Mac. It just made sense, right? I love using UNIX, but didn’t want to spend too much time on Linux.

DH: It’s perfect. I know a lot of people who resisted using a Mac for a long time. Then when Mac OS X first shipped, it was open arms. 180 degrees. And that works for end users as well as geeks.

But now, out of the blue, seemingly, comes Tweed. Where did this come from?

JW: I actually did a very low key experiment. About a year ago I released a free app. No marketing. Nothing. Just popped in the store. It was a combination of a Google feed reader, a Twitter client, and a couple of other things. The basic idea was that I was using Twitter to read stuff and Google reader to read [some of the same] stuff, and I didn’t really get why I needed to have all that overlap. So I wrote that app, popped it on the app store with no fanfare, no marketing…

DH: And what did you call that?

JW: Stickybeak. It’s an Australian colloquial term for someone who has his nose in everything. And that’s where I grew the code base from. That was my way of sort of feeling out the market and building up this code base. But I pulled it from the Ap Store when Twitter made some changes, the oAuth change. Then I realized I sort of hit the mark, yet hadn’t. For me, I wake up at eight in the morning, and eight hours has gone by in the U.S. and I have a long list of tweets to get through. You can kind of spot the URLs, and pick them out, but you’re missing stuff. So I wanted an app that just took my feed, just gave me links, and I could scroll through the list and trust I had all the links and could focus on what I wanted to read. Hence Tweed came about.

DH: Perfect. Of course, I’m a Tweed user myself. I love it for exactly the reasons you describe. It filters through the noise. I can move around. It’s very simple. I don’t feel that there’s 18 jillion features behind it that I’m missing. It’s a nearly single purpose app.

JW: Exactly right. But there is one hidden gem in Tweed. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but in all the twitter feeds that use a shortened URL [bit.ly, t.co], there’s actually a back end service that Tweed is using that goes fetches the whole page, parses it, and just spits back the title of the page and a bit of meta data. So if you’re on the 3G, you’re not having to go through all that query response and and all those redirects. We actually handle all that on the back end.

DH: So you do all that on the server side! [Dave is full of ahas and technical excitement.]

JW: Exactly. Which is really a kind of hidden gem in how Tweed works. That’s why you link so quickly. That’s going to become the cornerstone of this app. And now I have this good database of what people are looking at and what it translates out to. So my next step is pattern recognition for those titles. So I’m going to pull out the key words and group them all together. So for example, in the current version, you might scroll past 15 links about the current patent lawsuits. I can strip those down into the key words and group them all together for you. So in the next version, you get — here’s all the links about this patent troll for today. All automated. That way, you can see all the people who’ve talked about that topic and pick article of the most interest to you. And say, I don’t want to read the rest of them — in one step.

DH: So now I’m done reading about this patent thing, I’m done, the others are deleted. Now show me the rest.

JW: Right. They’re gone. And I think that’s really going to take us up to the next level. That’s the curation of reading taken up a notch. It gives you the ability to decide all the things that you don’t want to know. Or, more importantly, something is a hot topic, and I need to know all about it. Keep it front and center of my feed for the next few days.

DH: So… is there is there anything that we’ve seen announced this week that’s going to make any fundamental changes for you?

JW: Absolutely. Huge change. When I did Tweed originally, it was iPad only. The reason I gave publicly is that… it fits the form factor. You sit down, you’ve got some time on your hands, it’s review and read time. Whereas the iPhone is get and get out. And that didn’t suit what we were doing.

But the real underlying reason for me was that if you had Tweed on your iPhone and your iPad, what are you going to expect? You short list an article on your iPad, then you go get on the train, pull out the iPhone, and then where’s my short list gone? We couldn’t do that. Well, I could have written a backend web service for it…

DH: But you didn’t care to.

JW: And no one does that. But with iCloud, trading carefully on the NDA here, that’s going to give us the way to do that out of the box. So that’s a game changer for Tweed. The next version will be universal, iPad and iPhone. So the users can now expect, and we can easily make it so, that what ever you do on the iPad app, short list and history and saved for later is straight away on your iPhone ready to go.

And the amount of work that developers are going to have to do to make the cloud work is so minimal. That’s what made my brain explode — when I saw how little a developer has to do to make iCloud work.

Also, the fact, from the keynote, that Twitter is blessed, that it’s now front and center, is huge for me. For example, you saw how easy it is for someone reading in Safari and go tweet it?

DH: So, suddenly, your platform becomes that much more valuable.

JW: Exactly. We’re riding the crest of the wave here and saying that Twitter is the new RSS news source. This cements it. This is absolutely what’s going to happen. For example, you don’t see Safari having the ability to say, “Push this to my RSS feed.”

DH & JW simultaneously: Nooooo. You see it saying push this to Twitter.

JW: Blogging is obviously not going to go away, and people are going to continue to have their RSS feeds by default in their blogs, but… I think that’s really going to die off.

DH: You and I talked about this during the beta testing of Tweed. RSS is nebulous. You can read RSS with your eyes, but no one does. You certainly aren’t going to take mom, at least not my mom, and have her read RSS. But have her read Twitter and show her how Twitter feeds into Tweed? It’s easy.

JW: Its easy. It’s this idea of meta-curation. We’ve seen the rise of Read & Trust and Longreads and other organizations that specialize in … here, read these, these are interesting articles. It’s for people who really want to get into a certain headspace: give me articles related to that. But I don’t think you need to go to an agency like that. If you’re on Twitter, you’re already following and seeking people you like and have common interests. So it all happens for you by default. So of course you’re going to be interested in what they’re saying and what they’re reading and what they’ve published. You’re aggregating word of mouth. And doing it without even having to try.

So I really think the app is going to be quite big. And I’m really excited about it.

DH: Cool. Any final thoughts?

JW: I don’t want to leave Lithium out in the cold. That’s still a huge thing that I do. But from what I’ve seen of Lion, it’s a tipping point for us. When Leopard came out, we had to do so much work to make the app look great. To follow the Leopard manes of the UI. And in Snow Leopard, we didn’t have to do much because it was just a continuation of the same. But what’s interesting about Lion is that there’s a hoard of new UI elements, not ground breakingly new, but lot of them look different and are more subtle. But making your app take advantage of all these things is built into the APIs in Lion, so it’s time now to strip out all that hack and kludge we did and just make it look great We can just focus now on making the app great, and it’ll look great by default. So I’m really looking forward to stripping back the UI and giving everything a big refresh in the not too distant future.

DH: Awesome. Thank you James — it was a pleasure.

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1 Comments

John Dingler, artist

Very cool success story. Thanks John M.

I want to help a very nice elderly lady. She’s nearly crippled, nearly bedridden with a bone problem. Her violent and extremely controlling son vocally abuses her, wants to keep her isolated like a domineering husband, and will not permit her to hook up her present PC to the internet at all.

I believe that she can get around his dictatorial impositions by having her buy an iPad. With an iPad, I am thinking, the son may be confused enough about this new device to allow her to have it until he realizes that, like a PC, it frees a person such as she from her confines and his dictates. It may give her some time. You see, she is so scared of her threatening son and his eavesdropping, that she gets into her car in the back yard just to use the phone.

She is already paying for some sort of IT&T internet connection although the PC is in the closet, unused.

Question, perhaps also to all you techies is: What info would she need to have on hand and then provide to the Apple salesperson at the Apple store to get it connected there at the store and then have it remained connected in her (1) car and (2) her apartment?

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